Going Deeper

Today’s post is by Patience Robbins

“Holiness is not in what you do, but what you allow to be done to you by the circumstances of your life.” -Richard Rohr

At a recent retreat, we were pondering the phrase: going deeper. This phrase emerged in conversations about our desire for God and growing in our relationship with God. These are some of my reflections on this theme.

When I hear “going deeper,” my first response is to think of some profound mystical experience – something dramatic, extraordinary, a striking revelation of God in my life. I usually associate this with something special that I do: a retreat, time of prayer, visit to a sacred place, attending a church service. But as I listen to others and reflect on my experience, I realize that going deeper into God happens in the very ordinary, nitty-gritty of my life. It is usually an ongoing process and does not occur with flashing lights or strong winds.

A symbol that emerges is a tree. A tree is solid, steady, rooted and true to its being. A tree lives through various seasons and time. Occasionally there are some spectacular happenings like a storm with heavy winds, lightning and hail, but usually, life is flowing: light, darkness, rain, sun, wind, snow – the ongoing, ordinary passage of time and seasons. The tree continues to grow, fed and nourished through its roots, true to its being and bearing fruit.

And so it is with us. Life is usually very mundane. But as we seek God and allow ourselves to be rooted in God, we grow and expand in the very ordinary circumstances of life. This rootedness in God is hidden and imperceptible – we are not necessarily aware of all that happens in the dark. As we continue to seek God, we too bear fruit and become more of our true self.

This ‘being’ or rootedness in God implies a choice, however. It requires a deep acceptance of the circumstances of our lives, which are unique for each of us. It requires that we trust that God is present in our lives and companioning us in our reality. The surprise may be that the painful, difficult or unwanted circumstances of life could be the very ones that enable the roots to go deeper into God and let us stand more firmly in who we are.

A story that comes to mind is the one from the Gospel of Luke in which two disciples were walking with Jesus to Emmaus. As they were walking, they recounted their disappointment with all that had happened the past few days using the words: “we had hoped….” Everything seemed to have gone wrong. The man Jesus whom they followed had been crucified as a common criminal. Their hopes were dashed—now what? And as they walked and ate with Jesus, he revealed another way of looking at all of this so they saw it in a new way. What a twist—a surprise—to view these events in a different way so that God was there but not in the way they expected.

And so it with us. The way of deepening our relationship with God may not be what we had in mind or the way we had hoped. Instead, going deeper may be about our openness to God’s presence in all of the ordinary circumstances of life and saying yes to what is given – with joy.

On your own journey of discernment? Are you asking questions such as: Why am I here?  What is mine to do? Who am I called to be? And what can I contribute and offer to the world? This Lent, journey with Patience Robbins for a 6-session eCourse series: Open Hands, Willing Hearts, February 22 to March 29, 2015. Registration deadline is less than a week away! (Weds, Feb 18)

Click here to register.


Patience-RobbinsPatience Robbins has recently been directing Shalem’s Young Adult Life and Leadership Initiative, and is a graduate of Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program. She has been a spiritual director for over 20 years. Patience was the Director of Shalem’s Living in God: Personal Spiritual Deepening Program from 2003-08 and is the author of the booklet, Parenting: A Sacred Path. She is excited about the launch of her new eCourse: Open Hands, Willing Hearts, next week.

Redwoods photo by Susan Robbins Etherton

God Only Knows

Today’s post is from the writings of the late Gerald May.

When I was six years old I prayed, “Dear God, let me do what you want me to do.” By the time I was a young adult the prayer had changed to “Dear God, let me know what you want me to do.” The two prayers may seem similar on the surface, but underneath they are very different. The childlike prayer is intimate and trusting, asking only to be led and leaving the leading to God. In the adult prayer I asked for knowledge of God’s desire, with the implied message that once I knew what God wanted, I would try to carry it out.

I don’t know how many years I spent with that adult prayer. I do know that the more I tried to discern God’s will so I could carry it out, the further away from God I felt. It got to the point where I sometimes acted as if all I needed from God was my marching orders; I’d handle the rest on my own. I thought I understood discernment, but what I had really done was substitute intermittent contact and willful activity for abiding intimacy and trust.

Then, thank God, a time came when my discernment abilities evaporated. In what I now call my “dark night of discernment” I lost all capacity for clarity or understanding of God’s desire for me. All the discernment methods I knew produced nothing, and it seemed somehow absurd to keep working at them. Further, I realized I no longer even understood the concept of discernment. The term seemed to have lost all meaning for me.

To say the least, this was disconcerting at the time. It felt like some kind of brain problem, as if whatever lobe does discernment had simply ceased to function. I talked to friends and colleagues about it. Some nodded wisely and smiled as if they understood. I hate when they do that. Others tried to help me recover my old ways or discover new ways of being discerning, but it was all to no avail.

The effect, as usually happens in dark night experiences, was to lead me to simplicity. In this case I found myself guided back to my childhood prayer: “Dear God, let me do what you want me to do,” under my breath adding, “even if I don’t have a clue what it is.” Since my own capacities had completely failed, I had no choice but to trust God again in each moment, like a little child.

I had been brought to my knees. In that position I felt relief, freedom and an intimacy I’d long forgotten. I still had to deal with certain self-image issues, like competence for example. It doesn’t sound very responsible to answer questions with “I have no idea,” or “God only knows.”

Recently however, I found some Scriptural support for my incompetence. In fact, Scripture says my childhood prayer is a very good prayer indeed; loving trust is a whole lot more important than understanding. There’s the passage about the lilies of the field where Jesus says not to worry about tomorrow because God knows what we need. And there’s Deuteronomy 30:14 that says the Word is already in our hearts so we don’t have to go searching for it.

More powerful for me is Jeremiah 29:11, where God is saying, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your wellbeing… reserving for you a future full of hope.” In context, those words are a rebuke of false prophets who think they understand God’s thoughts. But they do not; only God does. Some translations even render it, “I alone know…” So maybe it’s true that God only knows.

Here’s what the passage says to me: “I alone know the desires I have for you; the prophets do not know my plans, and neither do you. Nor do you need to, because I have told you my desire is for your wellbeing.”

In this light, the following verses (12-14) become especially beautiful: “Then when you pray to me I will hear you; when you feel your desire for me you will find me; when you want me with all your heart, I will let you find me.” These words say to me that it’s not understanding God’s will that counts, but simple abiding love and trust.

By definition, a dark night experience always leads a person to greater freedom of life and deeper intimacy with God. I think that’s what has happened to me in my journey with discernment; I’m a lot less competent and a lot more grateful.

On your own journey of discernment? Are you asking questions such as: Why am I here?  What is mine to do? Who am I called to be? And what can I contribute and offer to the world? This Lent, journey with Patience Robbins for a 6-session eCourse series: Open Hands, Willing Hearts, February 22 to March 29, 2015.

Click here to register.


ME/May-obGerald May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and GraceCare of Mind/Care of SpiritWill and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.

Header photo by Susan Robbins Etherton.